Rev James Guthrie of Stirling

 It seems so easy to dismiss a persons life and efforts for whatever cause, in the hindsight of history.  The return of King Charles to the throne in 1660 resulted in the restoration of the king to his throne, his privy council, the Scottish parliament and judiciary and the return of the Bishops to the church.  In the aftermath of the Restoration there came a growing royalist reaction that sought out scapegoats for the Covenanting past which led inexorably to the execution of the Marquise of Argyll on 27 May 1661 and the Rev James Guthrie on 1 June 1661.

 Born to the Laird of Guthrie in Forfarshire, the young James was brought up in an Episcopal faith and schooled at Brechin Grammar School where he excelled in classics.  From there he went to St Andrews to study philosophy and thoughts of entering the church.  His scholarship was rewarded.  with appointment as professor of philosophy and with it the friendship and influence of Samuel Rutheford.  Until then he was fond of the ceremonies and procedures of the Episcopal church but when he left University it was to take up the ministry of a humble Presbyterian church.

He had joined the throng at Greyfriars to sign the National Covenant and took the step that was to see him the victim of a vengeful government twenty three years later.  Of those interim years he spent twenty two as a minister in charge of two churches at Lauder and Stirling where he moved his home to in 1650.

 In these years James Guthrie became much involved in the workings of the Presbyterian Church and became a leader in the Synod and the Assembly much respected for his clarity of thought, perception and patience.  Among his works was a treatise on Elders and Deacons and a pamphlet called “The Causes of the Lord’s Wrath against Scotland” which would be used as evidence against him at a later date.

He was the servant and messenger of the Assembly on many auspicious occasions such as when sent to see the Marquis of Montrose on 20 May 1650, the day before his execution.  Forthright in his comments he told Montrose that he was wrong for enlisting Irish help in his campaigns, and wrong to have forsaken the Covenant; to which Montrose expressed regret that any actions of his had been offensive to the Church of Scotland.

 On another occasion he was the servant of the Commission of Assembly given the task of excommunicating the Earl of Middleton, the Royal Commissioner in Scotland, who had been found out trying to get King Charles to forsake the ruling Presbyterian Committee of Estates.  On the Sabbath while on the way to church, (Howie in ‘Scots Worthies’ says a letter handed to him as he entered the pulpit which he did not open until after the service) Guthrie was met by a messenger with a request from the King, the Committee of Estates and the Commission seeking to delay excommunication.  After wrestling with his conscience and concluding that he must follow the Assemblies verdict (even though some now sought to stop him) he proclaimed John Middleton excommunicated and gained for himself a powerful and unforgiving enemy.

 Summoned by the King to Perth where he was holding Court, Guthrie also crossed swords with him.  Following the delivery of a critical sermon Charles clearly sought to over awe the humble minister but he was soon put in his place by Guthrie who told him that he recognised the King’s authority in civil matters but that he must not meddle with matters of religion.  Firmly put in his place the King responded by making Guthrie remain in Perth for a while, a virtual prisoner.

 James Guthrie was again prominent in two encounters with Oliver Cromwell.  The first was in 1648 when Cromwell was lodging in the Earl of Moray’s house in the Cannongate, Edinburgh.  Along with Rev Robert Blair and Rev David Dickson they sought Ironsides views of the role of the monarchy, religious tolerance, and whether the church should be Episcopal, Independent or Presbyterian.  Three tough questions with far reaching consequences that Cromwell replied Yes, No, and ‘give me time to think.’  The request for time was seen by the fervent Robert Blair as ‘dissembling’- avoiding the issue.  But Guthrie’s calm and patience won the day realising that there was nothing whatsoever to be achieved by rant and prejudice against the absolute military ruler.

 The second interview with Cromwell was in April 1651 in Glasgow, when representatives of the Church were invited by Cromwell to a conference.  The purpose was to respond to sermons and lectures delivered the day before, the Sabbath, which were critical of the Cromwellian approach to religion.  Neither side won their debate it appears, but from it arose the label of grudging respect that Cromwell gave James Guthrie - “The short man who could not bow” - meaning that Guthrie would not give in or concede his arguement.  A mighty testimonial by a mighty man.

 The death of Cromwell and the short lived rule of his son Richard was followed by Restoration of King Charles in 1660.  On his restoration Charles took a very firm line indeed towards the Scots, rejecting his former allegiance to the Presbyterians and packing the Scottish Parliament with his own supporters.  An act was passed almost immediately recognising the King’s authority in both civil and church matters and restoring prelacy, the rule of the bishops. So began 28 years of torment and persecution of the Presbyterians in Scotland.

 For James Guthrie the Restoration gave him one final task on behalf of the Assembly which was an address to the King.  With the assistance of others Guthrie drafted that they prayed for the safety of his Majesty and sought him to conserve the Reformed religion of Scotland.  They also reminded him that he had sworn to uphold the Covenant in former times.  The Kings response was prompt, and almost within hours the ten preachers and one of the two laymen who had drafted the address were imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle.  James Guthrie was soon transferred, first to Stirling, then to Dundee and then back to Edinburgh pursued by the vindictive Archbishop Sharp who regarded him as “a hairbrain rebel” and the grudge bearing Earl of Middleton.

 In February and April of 1661 Guthrie made appearances before the Scottish Parliament and responded to the charges against him but the conclusion was foregone.  In an almost empty House, perhaps ashamed at what was being done, he was sentenced to be hanged at the Mercat Cross on Saturday 1st June, his head to be fixed on the Netherbow gate and his estate confiscated.

So it was that hands bound behind him like a common thief he was taken for execution.  At the gallows he made a short speech and lastly cried “The Covenants, the Covenants shall yet be Scotland’s reviving” as he stepped into eternity.

 A poignant ending lies with the tale of William, the four year old son of James Guthrie, who would run out from his home nearby the Netherbow Gate to look upon his father’s head, suspended above.  He would then run home and tell his mother where he had been before locking himself in his room for many long hours.  It is said that the boy, although distressed by the sight and memory of his father’s death, considered the head that soldiers had fastened up the most beautiful head in the world.  The head would remain above the gateway for twenty seven years as a constant reminder to all of the sheer wickedness of the government and the Godliness of the Rev James Guthrie.  It is not without some irony that the head was taken down and buried by the Rev Alexander Hamilton then a student at St Andrews, who was Guthrie’s successor as minister at Stirling.

 The last Testimony of James Guthrie is listed as an Appendix in “The Wrestlings of the Church of Scotland for the Kingdom of Christ” which was Proclaimed and ordered to be burnt in December 1667.  Many copies survived however, and his Testimony is reproduced in The Martyr Graves of Scotland by the Rev J H Thomson The final few lines sums up clearly what all the Martyrs of the Covenant died for:

  “ The matters for which I am condemned are matters belonging to my calling and function as a minister of the Gospel - such as the discovery of sin and reproving of sin, the pressing and the holding fast of the oath of God in the Covenant, and preserving and carrying on the work of religion and reformation according thereto, and denying to acknowledge the civil magistrate as the proper competent judge in causes ecclesiastical - that in all these things, which - God so ordering by His gracious providence - are the grounds of my indictment and death, I have a good conscience, as having walked therin accordingly to the light and rule of God`s Word, and as did become a minister of the Gospel. “

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